Pro-Khalistan elements in Pakistan have stepped up propaganda targeting visiting Indian pilgrims and backing the so-called “Referendum 2020” at religious sites such as Nankana Sahib, which attract thousands of Sikhs from around the world.
When Indian pilgrims arrived on November 23 at Gurdwara Janamsthan in Nankana Sahib – built on the site where Sikhism’s founder Guru Nanak was born – they found the grounds of the shrine and buildings festooned with banners and posters on “Referendum 2020” and an “independent” Punjab.
The banners featured provocative slogans such as “Referendum 2020 will end India’s occupation of Punjab” and “Referendum 2020 is resistance against Indian occupation of Punjab”. Khalistan flags and life-size images of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the terrorist killed during the 1984 military operation against extremists holed up in the Golden Temple, were placed on several buildings.
The non-binding referendum on creating a separate nation of Khalistan is being spearheaded by Sikhs For Justice (SFJ), which has announced plans for opening an office in Lahore, SFJ’s legal adviser Gurpatwant Singh Pannu has said.
A statement issued by the external affairs ministry on November 23 expressed “grave concern” at attempts to “incite communal disharmony and intolerance and promote secessionist tendencies” during the visit of Indian pilgrims.
“The Pakistani security establishment keeps very close tabs on all such groups and there is no way SFJ could have gone ahead with these activities without the blessings of Pakistani intelligence agencies,” said an Indian official who didn’t want to be identified.
SFJ launched its campaign in London on August 12. The group plans to hold several events in Pakistan in 2019, coinciding with the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak. The group plans to hold a convention in November 2019 either at Kartarpur or at Nankana Sahib. The convention is expected to coincide with the opening of a corridor linking Dera Baba Nanak in India to Kartarpur Gurdwara that will allow Indian pilgrims to go to the shrine without visas.
People familiar with the developments said UK-based SFJ activist Sarbjit Banur played a key role in organising the campaign at Nankana Sahib. He was supported by Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee chief Gopal Singh Chawla, whose presence at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Kartarpur corridor on November 28 had raised eyebrows.
Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee president Gobind Singh Longowal on Tuesday said his body is not concerned about the “Referendum 2020” campaign. He also said he didn’t want to comment on SFJ’s activities.
Punjab Police officials said the intelligence wing had, over the past 20 months, busted 10 modules and arrested 30 people allegedly radicalised by SFJ activists to carry out violence activities related to the referendum campaign. “SFJ is preying on poor, illiterate and devout Sikh youth from villages and is radicalising them to carry out violence to promote the referendum…,” said Punjab director general of police Suresh Arora.